CHARLOTTE – Carolina's domination of Saturday's NFC Wild Card against the Arizona Cardinals wasn't reflected in the 27-16 final score. But the Panthers overcame mistakes to rally past Arizona and advance to the Divisional Playoff round with their first postseason win since 2005.
"We played better, that's why we won," head coach Ron Rivera said after notching his first playoff victory. "But the truth of the matter is we can a play a whole lot better."
By the looks of the statistics, you would've expected the Panthers to have run away with a lopsided victory at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina outgained Arizona 386 yards to 78 – the lowest yardage total in postseason history. But two Panthers' turnovers turned into two Cardinals' touchdowns, forcing Carolina to overcome a one-point halftime deficit.
"We pretty much faced adversity the entire game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "To be able to respond to adversity is something that we do pretty well around here."
The Panthers had reason to feel good after building a 10-0 lead after two possessions in the first quarter.
A 47-yard Graham Gano field goal was followed by a 13-yard touchdown run by running back Jonathan Stewart, who made two defenders miss before spinning into the end zone.
Carolina then forced Arizona to punt for a third consecutive time, but returner Brenton Bersin tried to secure the ball after an awkward bounce, and he muffed it. The Cardinals recovered the loose ball at the Panthers' 30-yard line.
Six plays later, quarterback Ryan Lindley found tight end Darren Fells for a 1-yard touchdown.
Gano missed a 43-yard field goal early in the second quarter, but the Panthers maintained the upper hand in the field position battle. Following a 31-yard punt by Arizona's Drew Butler, Carolina took over at the Cardinals' 34-yard line.
But on third-and-13, cornerback Antonio Cromartie intercepted quarterback Cam Newton's pass for wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and returned 50 yards before Newton ran him down at the Carolina 17-yard line.
"It can't happen," Newton said. "We have to do a better job of protecting the football."
Four plays later, running back Marion Grice gave Arizona a 14-10 lead with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Gano trimmed the deficit to one with a 39-yard field goal in the final seconds of the first half.
The second half started with a Carolina drive that churned 7:31 off the clock, but the Panthers ultimately punted on fourth-and-four from the Arizona 37-yard line, pinning the Cardinals at their own 8.
That proved to be a wise decision. The Cardinals went three and out, and Bersin fair-caught the punt at the Arizona 39-yard line.
It took one play for Carolina to retake the lead. Newton tossed a screen pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker on the right side of the field, and he avoided four Cardinals as he cut across the middle. Left tackle Byron Bell provided the finishing block on cornerback Patrick Peterson to allow Whittaker to score.
"All I had to do was run the other way, and that made it easy," Whittaker said. "But without the (offensive line's) help, I definitely would not have been able to get around the corner."
Said Bell: "I'm thankful he came my way."
Former Panther Ted Ginn, Jr. tried to ignite the Cardinals by returning the ensuing kickoff from eight yards deep in the end zone. Instead, he set up Carolina's third touchdown.
Cornerback Melvin White collided with Ginn, and his helmet made direct contact with the ball to force it out. Linebacker Kevin Reddick recovered for Carolina at the Cardinals' 3-yard line.
"I was able to run down free, Ted bounced it outside and I was able to make a play," White said.
A third-down pass interference penalty on safety Tony Jefferson, who was covering Olsen, gave the Panthers first-and-goal. Newton faked a handoff and found fullback Mike Tolbert wide open for a 1-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 27-14 lead with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter.
Arizona linebacker Sam Acho kept his team in the game by forcing Newton to fumble just before he released a pass early in the fourth quarter. Safety Rashad Johnson recovered the ball and returned it 30 yards to the Carolina 8-yard line.
But linebacker Luke Kuechly kept the Panthers' 13-point lead intact by intercepting Lindley's pass for wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on the next play.
"I don't think the quarterback was able to see me, and he threw it right to me," Kuechly said.
Carolina's All-Pro linebacker helped seal the victory by getting a hand on a pass that rookie safety Tre Boston intercepted with 1:54 left in the game.
"Guys have come together and bought into what we are doing," Kuechly said. "We took that first step today, and it's an absolutely awesome feeling."